It seems hard to believe, somehow, that half a century has passed since 1971. That year, as a result of the “Nixon shock,” the value of the Japanese yen — after decades of being pegged at an export-favorable ¥360 to $1 — rose to ¥308 to $1 under U.S. pressure. In July, McDonald’s opened its first hamburger outlet beside the Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo’s chic Ginza neighborhood. Its basic hamburger sold for ¥80.

On May 1, 1971, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun launched the Nikkei Ryutsu Shimbun, a thrice-weekly trade publication covering retailing and distribution. To draw attention its new publication, its management — realizing the Japanese innate love of hierarchies — struck upon the idea of listing the year’s most popular hit products using a banzuke (ranking list) in the traditional calligraphic style of sumo and kabuki. In descending order, the products corresponded to sumo’s yokozuna (grand champion), ōzeki (champion), sekiwake (junior champion) and so on, down the line.

The timing was not coincidental. By the end of the 1960s, marketing analysts realized Japanese consumers were not only purchasing goods to meet their material needs, but also out of a desire for psychological satisfaction, through preferences for products more closely attuned to their personal tastes and lifestyles. So from around this time, manufacturers had begun the process of niche marketing and diversification.

To keep the banzuke credible and honest, the parent company carefully monitored point-of-sale data from cash registers at department stores and other retailers. For items to qualify as hits, however, required more than just sales success. In the Nikkei Ryutsu Shimbun’s view, a hit product was expected to stand out, either by changing the direction of the market, carving out a completely new market segment or by appealing to changing lifestyles with something new and different, even audacious.

The first Nikkei Ryutsu Shimbun banzuke, in December 1971, modestly refrained from naming a yokozuna. The two top-rated hits, dubbed east and west ozeki, were blue jeans and tap water purifiers.

Now half a century later, the newspaper — since renamed Nikkei Marketing Journal — is still at work. Its hit product banzuke for 2021 appeared on the front page of its issue of Dec. 3.

The yokozuna on the east was Generation Z, so-called “digital natives” born from 1990 and onward. Their preferences are forcing marketers to retrench strategies with a variety of new and different approaches.

The west yokozuna was the Los Angeles Angels’ “two-way” star player Shohei Ohtani, who thrilled baseball fans on both sides of the Pacific and was unanimously voted recipient of the American League’s Most Valuable Player award.

A number of hits, not surprisingly, owed their appeal to the coronavirus pandemic. With people staying closer to home, frozen food items, as well as home freezers in which to store them, enjoyed strong demand. Golf has also gained popularity over the past two years, since players are able to avoid enclosed spaces.

With more than 70,000 pajama suits sold so far, demand is claimed to be four times that of regular business suits. | COURTESY OF AOKI HOLDINGS, INC.
With more than 70,000 pajama suits sold so far, demand is claimed to be four times that of regular business suits. | COURTESY OF AOKI HOLDINGS, INC.

Another by-product of the pandemic was the pajama suit, marketed by garment retailer Aoki, Inc. These comfortable ensembles combine attributes of pajamas, loungewear and work clothes, making them appropriate for wearing both indoors or on the street. With more than 70,000 suits sold so far, demand is claimed to be four times that of regular business suits.

For the west sekiwake, meanwhile, was “Squid Games,” South Korea’s dystopian drama series that captured the world by storm and also grabbed a large fan base in Japan.

Further down on the list were low-cost mobile phone plans, with monthly rates below ¥3,000 per month; Starbucks 47 Jimoto Frappuccino, different frappuccino flavors for each of Japan’s 47 prefectures; and a new type of “shop” that doesn’t sell merchandise, but merely displays products or provides explanations, with actual purchases delegated to the internet.

Also on the banzuke were several prizes. The “outstanding performance” award went to the expanded and upgraded Seibu-en amusement park in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture. The “fighting spirit” award was assigned to the new genre of genderless fashions. And the “technique” award went to robot waiters. Capable of ferrying food for up to four diners to a designated table and then clearing the dishes once customers are done, the robots are proving their mettle as a labor-saving device. The Skylark family restaurant chain expects to introduce them in about 2,000 branches by the end of next year.

The Nikkei Marketing Journal also ran a list of things to expect in the coming year:

  • Effective from April 1, the legal age of adulthood will be moved from 20 to 18 years, the first change in 140 years. Increased restrictions will also take effect to discourage use of plastics.
  • From June 1, the revised animal protection law will require dog and cat breeders and owners to implant microchips, in a move aimed mainly to discourage abandonment of pets.
  • The Tokyo Midtown Yaesu complex on the east side of Tokyo Station will feature Japan’s first Bvlgari Hotel, slated to open by summer.

While the Nikkei Marketing Journal typically dominates the year-end hit parade, it’s not the only organization to name hits. On Nov. 25, the SMBC Consulting Group also issued its own sumo-style banzuke, albeit much less elaborate in design than Nikkei Marketing Journal’s.

About half the items on their list overlapped with Nikkei Marketing Journal’s, including the 2020 Olympics/Paralympics, Shohei Ohtani, pajama suits, nonalcoholic beverages and Gege Akutami’s popular “Jujutsu Kaisen” manga series from Shueisha.

Finally, the December issue of Nikkei Trendy magazine listed the top 30 hits of 2021 along with 100 hit predictions for 2022. Toshiba’s new washer-dryer unit, named “New Zaboon TW-127XP1,” can be seen as an example of how manufacturers are banking on the lingering effects of the pandemic to appeal to customers. The model, which sells for more than ¥300,000, incorporates a “UV heated disinfection course” for antibacterial treatment of such articles as business suits and stuffed toys that cannot be laundered using water.

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